It's the 10th anniversary of "Books & Culture," and I was honored to be invited to take part. John Wilson, one of my favorite editors, sent me a boxed set of the six MGM "Tarzan" movies of the 1930's. Hope this will lighten your Labor Day weekend, following the distressing events of last week. My husband and I just returned from a long trip to England -- his sabbatical -- and in all I was over there six weeks, so I have a lot of catching up to do.
It's a high-wire act for a free-lancer (i.e., self-employed), like me, to be away from my desk, and phone, and email, for so long. A tip of the hat to the manager of this mailing list, Norman Joseph, especially for sending out a Beliefnet column for me on August 6. Kudos as well to webmaster Mitch Bright for keeping www.Frederica.com looking good; and thanks to Steve McMeans (www.orthodoxspeakers.com) for handling speaking requests. It's almost like I wasn't away, except there seems to be a sizeable pile of bills on my desk.
By the way, I just downloaded the software for "Google Earth" and recommend it to those of you whose computers can accomodate it. (Go to www.google.com and type in "google earth.") This program uses satellite cameras to give you a view of anywhere on earth you want to go. Just type in an address. I can begin with a view of earth hanging in space, and zoom dizzingly in to a shot of the roof of my house -- and then fly across the ocean to the home I stayed in, near Oxford, last week. I can visit the house we lived in in New Orleans 25 years ago, and see it still reassuringly high and dry. Pretty amazing.
Ungawa! Tarzan's timber-rattling call defies transcription, so we'll fall back on this all-purpose locution to salute this fine new box set of MGM's six Tarzan films. Ungawa is the perfect choice whenever you can't think of the right thing to say. It appears to mean Come here, Go away, Look out, Jump, and There's a cobra behind you. Just think how a sharply enunciated "Ungawa!" could clear a Starbucks when you don't want to wait in line.
However, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan's inventor, did not write "Ungawa." Although he wrote 24 Tarzan novels, he kept a tight reign on what he allowed others to use, and these movies are merely "based upon the characters" he created. Those characters were once only a gleam in the eye of a pencil-sharpener salesman, but they became a vast industry, the first to be "synergized" into comics, movies, toys, and other formats, and marketed around the world. Viewers who complain that the MGM movies do not follow the books shouldn't blame the filmmakers; Burroughs insisted that the film plots be wholly different, and not poach his own proprietary ideas. "Ungawa" comes to us courtesy of Cyril Hume, screenwriter of the inaugural film, "Tarzan the Ape Man" (Burroughs would not permit MGM even to use his own title, "Tarzan of the Apes.")
Burroughs had a right to be bossy. He crafted a character who set fire to imaginations around the world, throughout the twentieth century. Burroughs came late to fiction, having tried just about everything else first (Cavalry rider, gold miner, railway cop, accountant, shopkeeper, patent medicine salesman). It was while he was thumbing through some pulp magazines, checking on ad space he'd purchased for pencil sharpeners, that inspiration struck. He realized, as he later said, "If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, I could write stories just as rotten."
He was right. Burroughs had no talent for dialogue, and he communicated ideas with the ponderous self-importance of an after-dinner bore, but he wrote action scenes that make your hair stand on end. It was just the thing for the new story-telling medium, movies. The novel "Tarzan of the Apes" was a best-seller in 1914, and a hit movie (starring the pleasingly-named Elmo Lincoln) in 1918.
When we think of Tarzan, however, we're probably picturing the smoothly muscled form of champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Here he is, making his first appearance in "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932) a full half-hour into the film, swinging through the treetops and then crouching on a bough to gaze intently at the maiden below. He's appraising Maureen O'Sullivan, but he'd better look quick because she was a very busy Irish lass in the 1930's. In the course of that decade alone O'Sullivan appeared in an astounding 43 films, ranging from "Anna Karenina" and "David Copperfield" to "The Thin Man," "Strange Interlude," and the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races." Here she portrays pert and highly verbal safari sister Jane Parker (not Jane Porter; Burroughs reserved that name for *his* character).
Weissmuller is wearing a whole lot o' nothing, and looks perfectly at ease. According to his son, Johnny Weissmuller Jr., this was a prime consideration during casting; director Woody Van Dyke wanted someone who "could undress naturally, who looked natural undressed." Weissmuller won 5 Olympic gold medals and reportedly never lost a competition. He has enormous paddling hands and feet, and looks relaxed in a Speedo or less (in his one prior film, he wore only a fig leaf). He was under contract as an underwear model when he was tapped for the Tarzan role.
Subtly expressive acting ability was a lesser strength. If you find yourself mildly bored as the minutes slip past, you'll be like everyone in my living room the day we screened "Tarzan the Ape Man." There's plenty going on, but Weissmuller himself is not much of an anchor to the action. While Burroughs' book is set mostly inside Tarzan's awareness, and we are continually reminded of the noble intelligence Tarzan inherited from his tragically but conveniently dead parents, the movie allows us no such glimpse into what Weissmuller's Tarzan may be thinking. Outward appearances indicate it's not much. He's the original hunk of beefcake, monosyllabic and staring, while Jane chatters enough for the two of them. Of course, that might just be what was supposed to be so sexy about him. Recall comedienne Julie Brown's song, "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."
As Tarzan eyes Jane, her father and his troop of native bearers are distracted by an attacking horde of very short white male dwarves covered with brown shoe polish. You would be too. When they look around Jane has vanished, but it takes a good deal of squealing and wrestling and cries of "Let me go, you brute!" -- not to mention an escape and whole *second* abduction -- before Jane surrenders and is carried to the treetop love bower. The next morning she awakens looking quite content, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.
There's not much more to say about "Tarzan the Ape Man," apart from noting that it includes impressive B-roll footage shot in Africa, leftover from Van Dyke's earlier film, "Trader Horn." So the film-within-a-film is a documentary of African wildlife and landscapes in the late 1920's, and that alone makes it priceless. The trained elephants that act alongside Tarzan, however, are not what they seem. They're Indian elephants, more docile and trainable than African elephants, decked out with enormous rubber ears and false tusks to complete their disguise. They're wearing more than Tarzan is.
This is also a surprisingly violent film. There's a pretty scary scene in which the diminutive shoe polish tribe (the Kiwis?) chant maddeningly as they lower victims into the clutches of a massive gorilla in a pit. Tarzan stabs the gorilla in the eye, a Kiwi screams as he's trampled by an elephant, and it's all pretty gory. At the end we see Jane remain behind with Tarzan and the annoying chimp Cheeta, though no explanation is supplied.
The Tarzan series has the distinction of being one of the few in which the second film, the sequel, is considered better than the first. Among the 50-odd Tarzan films made over the last century, "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934) is generally hailed as the best of them all. It's also more explicitly sexy than any other film in this series, to an extent that will be surprising to many modern viewers. The Hays Code, that quixotic attempt at self-regulation by the film industry, was introduced in 1930, but not strictly enforced until 1934. "Tarzan and His Mate," scooting in just under the wire, gives us Jane in an extremely skimpy leather bikini, and though she enters a tent to remove it she is so sharply backlit that the silhouette leaves nothing to the imagination. There's another languid post-coital morning scene, in which Jane instructs Tarzan to call her "wife" though, as we know, they are living without benefit of clergy. Tarzan is just as big and stupid here as he was in the previous film, and Jane retains all her society-girl cleverness, the contrast conveying the impression that she retains him as a double-duty bodyguard and sexual plaything. Even steamier material, deleted by censors, has been restored in this version: Jane takes a morning swim completely in the nude, and an underwater camera lingers on her aquatic gymnastics with her paramour.
You'll note that I'm not spending much time on the plots of these movies, which involve the fabled elephant's graveyard, lions, treachery, faithful guides, savage tribes, and a massive rubber crocodile that spins like a chicken on a highpower spit. The second film is as gruesome as the first. A white explorer is found shot through the forehead and hung upside down, and our introduction to event is a sudden closeup of his bloody face, crawling with flies. He's been killed by a tribe whose mark is sending an arrow through the forehead, which doesn't seem like the most vulnerable site. The tribe are called the Gamboni, suggesting that they arrived in the jungle by way of Sicily.
Weissmuller and O'Sullivan made four more films together, and I hope it won't spoil it for you if I reveal that in "Tarzan Escapes" (1936), Tarzan escapes. This troubled production had already been completed and titled when it was discarded and completely remade; the trailer trumpets that the film was "Two years in the making!," as if that had been the plan all along. The Code has caught up with Jane's wardrobe, and she wears a much more modest leather dress here and in all subsequent films. (This film was significant for O'Sullivan for other reasons; she married its screenwriter, John Farrow, and they later had a daughter named Mia.)
In "Tarzan Finds a Son!" (1939), Tarzan finds a son. He couldn't *have* a son, because he and Jane are still, technically, unmarried, and the censors are belatedly concerned about giving the wrong impression. So a private plane crashes in the jungle, and the only survivor is a baby boy, whom Tarzan names Boy. The scenes between Weissmuller and engaging child actor Johnny Sheffield are refreshingly genuine; it's clear that both were having fun on the shoot, and truly enjoying each other. Tarzan may have been empty-headed as a jungle lover, but he looks like he made a great dad.
In "Tarzan's Secret Treasure" (1941), Tarzan has a secret treasure; in "Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942) Tarzan, improbable as it sounds, has an adventure in New York. By the last of this series all the jungle wildness has been drained out of these films, and Tarzan's life with Jane and Boy is thoroughly domesticated. In the first two films, they bed on a pile of moss and leaves; in the third we are given a tour of their elaborate treehouse, complete with elephant-powered elevator and so many other clever conveniences that it may as well have been in Levittown. We've strayed from edgy, violent, sexy jungle drama to the borders of TV sitcom.
There are some who love these movies for exactly that safe, clean quality; one (presumably adult) fan writes touchingly on his website, "I always wished (and sometimes still do) that I could be Boy." But most grownup viewers over the years probably wished they could be Tarzan or Jane. Burroughs knew what he was doing. He may have written rot, but it's rot that the average person finds curiously compelling, and which fills the imagination with all manner of ungawa.
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